Cops On Campus

By Jessica Portner — June 22, 1994 23 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The 800-megahertz radio blares the message from the dispatcher, and San Diego School Police Officer Jim Snead speeds off toward Roosevelt Junior High School.

When Snead pulls up to the school in his shiny white patrol car, a 7th grader, surrounded by administrators, is staring at the four-inch knife he brought to class that day.

The officer searches the 14-year-old’s pockets, clasps the student’s hands behind his back, and snaps on handcuffs.

“We have to let them know this is serious,’' says Snead, guiding the boy’s head as he climbs into the back seat of the patrol car. “He earned this.’'

Juvenile Hall is only a short distance away. The student sits in the back seat behind a Plexiglas window as the patrol car passes a city park and rows of pink and gray houses. The boy bows his head and begins to cry.

“This kid’s a wannabe gang member. He feels pressure from his brothers and is trying to find an identity,’' says Snead, who admits that even he joined a gang as a boy in the 1950’s.

But things are different now. The gangs. The weapons. “I see so much death,’' sighs Snead, who has been a police officer for more than 25 years, including a 10-year stint in the New York City Police Department. “It’s all very scary.’'

The Juvenile Hall building is faded brick. Snead escorts the young offender into the holding cell, a tiny square room with a single window. Dressed in a white T-shirt and blue jeans, the boy waits in the cell, dangling a shoe from his big toe.

He will be booked on a weapons-possession charge and remain here, stripped of his personal belongings, until a judge schedules a hearing for him.

Those are the rules under “zero tolerance.’' The new policy, approved in the spring of 1993 by the board of the San Diego City Unified School District, requires that a student who brings a weapon to school or commits a violent act be sent to Juvenile Hall and detained until he or she can see a judge.

Because students who break this rule are automatically remanded to the custody of the police, zero tolerance creates a bigger caseload for everyone. But school officials say it’s worth the extra effort. Since the policy has been in effect, the number of violent crimes in or around the district’s schools has decreased by 33 percent.

“We are able to reduce crime because we have a consistent policy, and people understand punishment,’' says Alex Rascon Jr., the district’s chief of police since 1977.

Growing concern about crime on campus is leading increasing numbers of school districts nationwide to create police forces that emulate municipal departments.

The main difference between school police forces and their city counterparts, Rascon says, is the focus on crime prevention.

“Yes, I can arrest the world, but that’s not going to solve the problem,’' he adds, patting the .38-caliber revolver on his hip. “People need to learn how to get along better with each other.’'

The 57-year-old chief, who eschews the traditional police uniform for a more understated suit and tie, runs the oldest--it was founded in 1969--and one of the most respected school law-enforcement outfits in the country.

Onto a neat but crowded desk Rascon empties a grab bag of weaponry representing a week’s worth of confiscations: brass knuckles, a seven-inch “kung fu knife,’' several revolvers, toy guns, and a penknife with a razor-sharp blade.

Students who bring weapons like these to San Diego schools are required to watch educational videos that are anti-gang, anti-violence, and anti-weapons. Parents of student offenders are also required, under threat of a fine, to see the films.

“It’s not that we are trying to introduce the kid to the criminal world,’' Rascon says. “We’re trying to inconvenience the parent so they can work with the kid to correct the problem.’'

“You may be a straight-A student, but you have no business bringing a 9mm gun to school,’' he says.

Eye on Prevention

The department’s employees are all trained law-enforcement officers, graduates of police or sheriffs’ academies. But before they can begin their work protecting the city’s schools, the officers are put through additional special training. All newcomers, regardless of how much experience they have, are required to take 10 hours a year of violence-prevention, gang-prevention, and conflict-resolution classes.

Rascon, who is of Mexican heritage, also requires his officers to participate in racial-sensitivity workshops so they can work in harmony with the district’s diverse student population.

“Cambodian, Vietnamese, Filipino, Russian--everybody wants to come live here in San Diego,’' Rascon remarks. Officials say that 67 different languages are spoken in the schools.

But the main criterion for being a successful school police officer is the ability to cultivate relationships with young people, a quality that is difficult to teach.

“A school police officer is an educator, a counselor, a parent--he’s everything to that youngster,’' Rascon says. That’s why the chief favors seasoned recruits.

The average age of a San Diego school police officer is 40, a generation older than the city’s cops, who are commonly in their 20’s.

It’s important to have mature school police officers who have already gotten most of the “young-policeman syndrome’’ out of their systems, explains James Stark, the operations officer for the department. Stark served in the San Diego city force for 17 years before coming to work for the school district.

“Our officers aren’t trying to see how many tickets they can write or how many arrests they can make,’' Stark says. “We don’t need Rambos.’'

Prepared for Anything

Policing the schools, however, is just as challenging as policing the streets.

The department’s 38 sworn officers are charged with serving and protecting the district’s 196 elementary, middle, and secondary schools, which are spread across 210 square miles of dry, hilly terrain. Because the department is too small to patrol each school individually, the chief concentrates his forces in the areas where crime tends to thrive.

Eighteen campus officers are assigned full time to certain schools that have been deemed to be trouble spots because of gang activity or violence in the surrounding areas.

Fourteen investigators float from school to school gathering evidence, taking testimony from witnesses, and serving as back-up to other officers in the field. The department’s remaining six officers are on patrol. They scout sections of town in patrol cars from dawn until 2 A.M., arresting and transporting criminals and protecting school property.

With a $2.3 million annual budget that includes spending for both educational services and equipment, Rascon has tried to create a police department that is prepared for anything. That’s why, with the blessing of the superintendent, Rascon recently installed an emergency-operations center in a room down the hall from his office.

A long beige table winds around the perimeter of the room like a horseshoe. At each workstation is a phone and a thick red notebook full of emergency phone numbers, evacuation plans, and procedures on everything from chemical spills to vandalism.

It looks a bit like a phone bank for a telethon. But the emergency center is the nerve center of the department.

The district’s administrators, head custodians, health director, counselors, and security officers can mobilize their staffs within minutes in the event of a natural disaster or other crisis.

The emergency center is even equipped with four lockers filled with emergency food supplies--jumbo jars of peanuts and boxes of macaroni and cheese--enough to feed the center’s 15-member staff for three days.

If, say, a major earthquake were to strike San Diego, Rascon would have direct communication with any principal in the district who needed immediate help in evacuating students from a building.

Good communications are a critical part of everyday school policing, especially in a small department responsible for patrolling a large area.

On a daily basis, the radio dispatcher is the field officer’s lifeline. In the communications room adjacent to the emergency-operations center, Ed Miller picks up the receiver and jots down an officer’s location. He enters the officer’s “field position’’ in the computer, which spits out a record once an entry has been logged. Dispatchers must know an officer’s whereabouts at all times so they can relay messages, or send assistance if an officer is in trouble.

A dispatcher with the department for nearly 22 years, Miller has learned to set priorities in responding to distress calls.

“Sometimes, it’s a traffic accident or a flood or a maintenance guy who cuts his finger off,’' says Miller, who encourages the public to call the school police to report incidents, no matter how minor. “But we have a philosophy here: We handle the most serious calls first. You always send several officers to a dangerous situation.’'

Keeping the Peace

The midcity section of San Diego is tough. Drug dealers, prostitutes--the picture of inner-city squalor. Homeless people push shopping carts down the main drag--El Cajon Boulevard, a street infamous for crime. And all of a sudden there is a school in the middle of it.

It looks open and airy. The bougainvillea drapes lazily over the tops of the sand-colored bungalow classrooms. But, Crawford Senior High School is well protected. All of the windows are heavily screened, and the campus has a 10-foot-high fence along the perimeter.

John Courdoff, the site officer for the school, is making his lunchtime rounds. He wears dark sunglasses, a blue suit, and a sleek plastic Glock in his hip holster.

A handsome 34-year-old, Courdoff is a cop straight out of “Miami Vice.’' Driving around the hilly campus in a go-cart--which the students have dubbed the “narcmobile’'--he is straight-backed and expressionless, projecting an image of authority.

He takes a turn through the central plaza and out onto the grassy playing field where three students slowly amble up a steep slope. He meets them at the top of the hill.

“Someone saw you guys smoking yesterday,’' Courdoff says to the stunned, slightly glassy-eyed group. “I’m not gonna bust you, but don’t smoke.’' He lets them off with a warning and drives toward the front entrance of the school. These students’ faces are now stored in Courdoff’s memory. They have joined the group of students he will monitor closely from now on.

Shawn Murphy, a tall, blond 11th grader whom Courdoff once arrested for grand theft auto and marijuana possession, says the officer intimidates everyone, even him, into playing it straight.

“If it weren’t for him, this school would be a hellhole,’' says Shawn, flipping his hair back casually. “He keeps everyone in line.’'

Even though the San Diego city police call Courdoff and his co-workers “kiddie cops’’ and “diaper dicks,’' Courdoff, who came to the department right after he graduated from the police academy two years ago, says he loves his job and has no intention of moving on.

“I’m going to stay here until 2017--until that golden handshake,’' he says.

Principal David Lamay says he doesn’t know what he would do without Courdoff.

“John has an educator’s mentality and the skills of a policeman,’' Lamay says. “Those are qualities that are hard to come by.’'

Most important, Courdoff’s presence at Crawford High allows the principal to get on with the business of running a school.

“I don’t have to investigate weapons. He checks all that out, and I can get on with the education piece,’' Lamay says.

But Courdoff keeps school officials informed of even the most minor incident through an in-school radio system.

The school and police staff collaborate on everything from enforcing dress codes to supervising athletic events.

The principal meets regularly with Courdoff to do “rumor control’'--to hear what the police have heard from kids about weapons, drugs, or any fights that might be brewing.

Lamay says the site officer gives administrators “an instantaneous read on the law,’' which helps them evaluate what punitive measures they can take against students.

Because teachers and principals are often unfamiliar with the procedures involved in law enforcement, Courdoff also trains them on the basics of campus crime prevention.

Courdoff, who arrests one or two students each week, also makes sure every class gets a lecture on enforcement.

But the part of his job Courdoff most enjoys is helping to turn young offenders away from crime. Under zero tolerance, a judge often sentences students, especially first offenders, to participate in a “diversion’’ program designed by a school police officer.

Diversion can mean anything from community service to tutoring. But Courdoff is fond of more introspective assignments. He makes many of the students under his charge keep a daily journal and often requires them to visit the school counselor for therapy.

If convicted students are forced to think about what they do, they may be less disposed to commit another offense, he believes.

But some Crawford High students say Courdoff is too harsh.

“He harassed me for nothing one day,’' says 9th grader Desi Nash, a 15-year-old in baggy blue jeans standing in the quadrangle at lunch time.

“I had a shirt with my name on it, and he said it was gang-related,’' he fumes. “This dress code is crap.’'

Senior Le Nguyen, Crawford’s student body president, says many students are uneasy with Courdoff’s presence at school.

“It scares some kids. The idea that he is the police scares people, like ‘What is he doing on campus?’''

Many educators in San Diego originally resisted allowing the school police to have offices on school grounds, arguing that it would make schools seem more like prisons than places of learning.

But Crawford’s assistant principal, Joan Stewart, believes that that view is naÃive.

“It’s Pollyanna to say an officer who wears a gun is representative of a police state,’' Stewart says. “He represents protection for the school from the community, and parents are grateful.’'

The local teachers’ union also gives the district’s law enforcers high marks.

“It really comes in handy when there is a volatile situation and school police are there to deal with it,’' says Bill Crane, the president of the San Diego Teachers Association.

Crane remembers when a gang member came to enroll at a high school flashing his gang colors at members of a rival gang. The officer at the site took the student into his office, away from a crowd that was gathering, and promptly called his parents to pick him up.

“It was an explosion waiting to happen,’' says Crane, who worked at the school at the time. “The officer was absolutely invaluable.’'

Crane says that even though the school district has a limited budget, the union supports increased funding to supplement the school police force.

He hopes that the district eventually will be able to have officers on site in the middle schools as well.

State of Chaos

Twenty years ago, most school officials would never have dreamed of allocating their precious resources to hire armed police to protect campuses. If increased security was required for a football game or a school dance, a district typically hired security officers for the night.

Today, more than 50 school districts have spent millions of dollars to set up professionally trained school police forces that operate around the clock. In the late 1970’s, there were fewer than 100 school police officers in the United States. Today, there are more than 2,000.

Congressional leaders currently are debating a crime bill that would authorize millions of dollars in federal aid to be spent for policing the nation’s schools.

In part, the growth in school police forces reflects heightened public concern over the rise in juvenile crime across the country.

While the rate of homicides committed by adults fell between 1986 and 1991, the rate for 14- to 17-year-olds more than doubled during the same period, according to U.S. Justice Department figures. Moreover, guns are now the leading cause of death among 10- to 14-year-olds, and experts estimate that every day 100,000 firearms are brought to school.

The growing presence of police officers on school campuses from Maine to California represents a profound change in American society.

“It’s a sad commentary when schools have to have school police on campus,’' says Jim Vlassis, the principal of San Diego’s Mira Mesa Senior High School. “But that is what it has come to because we are so permissive in America. We have a breakdown of the family. Prisons are crowded. We have lost our focus.’'

“The fact is, we are in a state of chaos,’' he says.

In this disturbing climate, police forces are seen as the only way many school districts can maintain order.

The Mean Streets

Mike Harris, the San Diego school police department’s newest recruit, cruises down the main drag near one of the city’s most troubled high schools. Classes have just let out for the day, and Harris is on the alert.

Two rival gang members got into a fight today, and the site officer at the school told the troublemakers that if they came within a block of the campus, they would be arrested. Harris scans the sidewalk of the boulevard strewn with trash and broken bottles. Then, he spots several familiar faces--gang members--lounging by a telephone booth on a nearby corner.

His patrol car circles the block like a predator. When he approaches the group, its members scatter down the street.

“They feel safer in numbers. That’s why they call them Crips--'Cowards Run in Packs,’'' Harris jokes. “You can tell I am real fond of gang members.’'

“Originally, Crips came from Los Angeles,’' he continues. “The first black gangs were Bloods, or the Pirus. The Pirus were going around victimizing people, so then to protect themselves, [the victims formed] the Crips. And now they are nationwide. They cross all ethnic backgrounds. All walks of life, it doesn’t matter, it’s a fad now. And it’s really, really, really sad.’'

Harris believes school policing is a noble profession.

“I don’t want people thinking that schools are safe havens for criminal activity,’' he says. “The people of this great state aren’t going to tolerate it, and I, as a police officer, am not going to tolerate our children being poisoned or molested by these criminals.’'

Preventing children from joining gangs is a personal mission for Harris, who grew up in Compton, Calif., where gangs are ubiquitous.

“What kids want from school law enforcement is direction,’' says Harris, sitting behind the wheel of his patrol car, which has the words “Crime Prevention Through Education’’ emblazoned in black letters across the side.

He drives by Garfield, an alternative high school for chronic truants, and spies several youngsters meandering into an alley.

Harris is searching for “taggers’'--graffiti artists whose marks are apparent on neighborhood buildings, sidewalks, and fences. Defacing school property is a misdemeanor.

And Harris believes taggers are potential “gangbangers.’' He thinks most could benefit from some guidance and direction in using their common sense.

Turning into the alley, Harris inches the patrol car toward seven teenagers casually walking together. Harris asks the boys if they “paint or draw,’' and they answer in unison: “No.’'

He reminds them that tagging is illegal and then warns them not to walk in the alleys, even during the day. Drug dealers conduct their business here, he explains.

“Besides, aren’t you supposed to be in class?’'

Suddenly, the car radio, which had been droning a constant hum of police codes, calls out “310''--Harris’s patrol number. It’s a “415''--a disturbance call--from a nearby elementary school. The dispatcher says a black male juvenile is being chased by six youths.

When Harris arrives a few minutes later, 13-year-old Rodney Berry is standing in the principal’s office trembling with fear. Harris pulls out a notepad from his back pocket and takes down the young man’s story. Rodney tells Harris he was walking home from his middle school when six Hispanic youths started chasing him.

To escape them, the boy says, he jumped over a fence and ran into this elementary school to call the police. Harris leads the student to the patrol car and takes him for a ride to see if he can spot his pursuers.

Scanning the street from the car window, Rodney explains: “I got in a fight with one of them last week, and they decided to come and get me.’'

After a five-minute search, the six kids are nowhere in sight. Harris drives the boy home.

“These guys were in a gang. They would’ve jumped me,’' he says and thanks Harris for the ride.

To Catch a Thief

Bob Martin, one of the department’s veteran investigators, is at the San Diego High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. It is his first assignment of the day.

Three or four thefts occur each day in the 20 schools the Belgian-born officer supervises in the southeast section of town.

“Mostly, it’s real petty. Johnny’s pencil. Mary’s comb. Not a police matter,’' Martin says.

But at this school, the alleged theft is serious. Several students are suspected of stealing a teacher’s keys and wallet and charging several items on her credit card.

David Libbey, the dean of students, has already made some inquiries and has lined up witnesses for Martin to question. Perusing the list of names in Libbey’s office, Martin radios headquarters to run a records check. It’s always important to know as much as you can about a suspect, he says.

“Some of these kids are accomplished liars--holy cow, to the point of being sociopaths,’' Martin remarks. “So I always ask what is known about this child. Are they known to be honest or dishonest, squirrelly or devious?’'

The police records show that none of the students has a criminal past, so Martin proceeds to interview them, one by one, in an administrator’s empty office.

Martin sits behind a desk across from his first witness, a 16-year-old girl. He introduces himself, and begins to read the student her rights. Though he doesn’t suspect her of the crime, he explains her legal rights just in case he ends up arresting her. If he didn’t, and she admitted participating in the theft, he wouldn’t be able to use her confession in court.

“I didn’t get any money out of it,’' she says, nervously picking red polish off her fingernails.

“But you know what your friends did is just basic stealing. You certainly know the difference between right and wrong?’'

Martin proceeds with a five-minute lecture on ethics, the kind of scolding one would expect from a sensible big brother.

She tells him where she thinks the keys are, and he lets her go, calling in the next witness.

Interrogating juveniles is a delicate task, says Martin, who is clearly an authority on the subject.

The school police department investigates an average of 3,500 criminal incidents each year; to help the courts successfully prosecute these crimes, school police must master a complex set of laws that specifically relate to juveniles.

“Dealing with kids is different. If you make a technical error with an adult, the courts might be a little more forgiving than if it happens with a child,’' Martin observes. “With children, it gets sticky. You are supposed to apprehend and protect them at the same time.’'

During the third interrogation, the teacher’s keys are found. Martin tells Libbey he plans to arrest two students unless they come forward in the next few days.

Outside, Libbey holds up the keys while Martin snaps a Polaroid for evidence.

Since Martin juggles many schools at a time, he relies on administrators like Libbey to do much of the preliminary work on his cases. The courts hold police officers to a higher legal standard than school officials when it comes to searching students, so investigators encourage administrators to gather evidence for them.

“Without cooperation from the administrators, I don’t get anything done. That’s just the fact of the matter,’' Martin says.

Martin, who has four sons of his own, says he has stayed on the school police force for 17 years because he wants to get a little more out of police work than he could as a city cop.

“I prefer not to call the San Diego Police Department for back-up because the officer is going to come in dressed in uniform, with his nightclub and his Mace and 12 sets of cuffs,’' Martin huffs. “And all he wants to know is, ‘Where’s the guy, give me the body, I’ll drag him outta here.’''

“Me, personally, I have a little different attitude with these kids. I’m not saying these are good people. The child might be very sophisticated in his criminal acts. But if you write them off at this age, you’re going to be dealing with them for the next 40 years.’'

Night Patrol

It’s around midnight, and 280-pound Gene Mauro is tiptoeing around the white gravel courtyard of Horace Mann Middle School looking for signs of intruders. There is a steady hum of crickets in the background, and the cool air is scented with wildflowers.

The 56-year-old Mauro is doing his nightly rounds, monitoring all the school properties in the midcity region for signs of vandalism or burglary.

Each school has a complex alarm system that includes infrared sensors that detect motion. On a typical night, a half-dozen alarms may sound; the night-patrol crew has to investigate each one.

The school is lighted only by streetlamps and a full moon; the inside is dark. That’s by design. The district requires custodians to turn off all interior and exterior lights when they finish their shift.

Contrary to the common perception, Mauro says, lights do not deter crime. Since the policy was implemented in 1977, fewer intruders have been found on campuses at night. And the San Diego schools have saved $1 million a year in utility costs.

Still, even with the district’s security measures, Mauro and his partners on night patrol arrested 400 burglars on school property this school year.

“This school building seems secure,’' the officer says. Then, training his powerful flashlight on a window across the courtyard, he sees that a blind is crooked, a possible sign of illegal entry.

Peering in, he sees the classroom is stripped of furniture. The custodians have been cleaning and probably opened the window to air the room out, he concludes.

“Nothing fishy here,’' he figures.

Probing the courtyard for graffiti, Mauro’s flashlight pauses on a game of hopscotch etched in white chalk on the asphalt. He moves on slowly to a part of the school that has been cordoned off because of the presence of asbestos. A sign on a door behind a yellow police line reads “No Entry/Danger.’'

He checks this area three times a night in the spring because kids like to camp out on the benches and in the narrow spaces separating the school buildings.

“We have to protect the kids from asbestos. Some can’t read,’' he says.

But the “campers’’ also break into the school, he says, to steal VCR’s and computers. One student, he recalls, set fire to an entire school building to wipe out his school records.

“Kids are destroying the campuses. They are practicing to be big burglars,’' he says.

A night patroller’s job is particularly hazardous because he enters a school building alone, says Mauro, who was once a heavyweight judo champion.

Even though the school police can always call their city counterparts for back-up, it is contrary to police procedure to respond to a burglary report with just one officer.

“Bad things happen on the night shift,’' says Miller, the dispatcher, who recently had to send fire trucks to a school where an entire wing had been torched by arsonists during the night.

The police department has requested extra money from the school district to hire more night patrollers. But, for now, Mauro is one of only a half-dozen officers defending nearly 200 schools in total darkness.

But, Chief Rascon says, for his officers, the benefits often far outweigh the hazards. No other kind of police officer has more opportunity to invest in the future.

“On the street, you arrest somebody, and then you’re finished, and you go on to the next,’' Rascon muses. “Here, in school police, you arrest somebody, and you’re not finished. You meet the kid the next day and the next day and the next. Come graduation time, he’s liable to come up to you and say, ‘Thanks Alex, for helping me out.’ That is a reward you look forward to.’'

A version of this article appeared in the June 22, 1994 edition of Education Week as Cops On Campus


Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
English-Language Learners Webinar English Learners and the Science of Reading: What Works in the Classroom
ELs & emergent bilinguals deserve the best reading instruction! The Reading League & NCEL join forces on best practices. Learn more in our webinar with both organizations.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
Challenging the Stigma: Emotions and STEM
STEM isn't just equations and logic. Join this webinar and discover how emotions fuel innovation, creativity, & problem-solving in STEM!
Content provided by Project Lead The Way

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Briefly Stated: February 7, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated: January 31, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
9 min read
Education Briefly Stated: January 17, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
9 min read
Education In Their Own Words The Stories That Stuck With Us, 2023 Edition
Our newsroom selected five stories as among the highlights of our work. Here's why.
4 min read
102523 IMSE Reading BS
Adria Malcolm for Education Week